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Professors David Helfand, Gerard Ateshian Chosen as 2002 'Great Teachers'

By Jason Hollander

From left: Anna K. Longobardo, Engineering '49, trustee emerita and chair, Great Teacher Awards Committee; Gerard Ateshian; David Helfand, and Peter A. Basilevsky, CC'67, president, Society of Columbia Graduates.

In 1949, former Columbia and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in attendance when the first Great Teacher Awards were presented to Professors Mark Van Doren and Edwin H. Armstrong by the Society of Columbia Graduates. On October 30, at the Society's 93rd annual dinner, Professors David Helfand and Gerard Ateshian joined an expanding list of distinguished educators in being cited by the Society as Columbia's "Great Teachers" of 2002.

Helfand, a professor of astronomy, and Ateshian, professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering, were both especially moved by the significance of the honor.

"Since I was a student here for so many years, many former winners of this award have been my mentors," says Ateshian. "I am certain that I owe my award to them. I'm humbled to be recognized."

Helfand, whose goal is to inspire his students to think outside the concepts of their own experiences, says a distinction for teaching is "preferable" to any recognition he could receive for his research.

Ateshian, who came to Columbia in 1984 as a transfer student from his native Beruit, received his undergraduate degree from the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science in 1986, his MS from the school in '87, and then an MA and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1990 and '91, respectively.

"Columbia is my family. I got all my degrees from here. My wife and I were married in St. Paul's Chapel," he says.

Since becoming a professor of engineering, Ateshian has focused on employing a "show" rather than "tell" method of teaching.

"The textbook doesn't have the same impact as when I actually show [students] how something was conceived, designed and manufactured in a lab," he says.

Ateshian, who is an internationally recognized leader in research on the biomechanics of joints, has had his work supported by the National Institute of Health and has already obtained two patents: for manufacturing anatomically correct prostheses and for the three dimensional modeling of anatomical joints.

He often assigns beginning students design projects that explore how the simple things around us -- doorknobs, hole punchers, windshield wipers -- work and why those elementary models are important to understanding more complex concepts.

"Creativity is built in great part from experience," says Athesian, noting that his own work is influenced by the lessons he still learns in the classroom. "There's no question that my research and teaching are intertwined."

A professor who some say combines a showman's flair with a scientist's precision, Helfand is more concerned with communicating to his beginner students "the notion that science is exciting and inspiring" rather than making memorization of content the critical goal.

"The brain is a remarkable construction," he says, noting that understanding science requires the brain to undergo "a different mode of reacting to the world around it, a different mode of reading sentences."

Helfand believes that most students can grasp the scientific laws that govern the universe, but they must be willing to work at it. He recalls a student who scored an 18 on his first test only to achieve a 95 on the final exam after completely delving into the material.

A graduate of Amherst College, Helfand received his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts. He was appointed a professor of physics at Columbia in 1987 and a professor of astronomy in 1992. Helfand has served two terms as co-director of the Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory and is currently chair of the department of astronomy and astrophysics. He is a regular contributor to the Astronomical Journal, the Astrophysical Journal, Nature and Monthly Notes of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Helfand is spearheading efforts to develop a new CORE curriculum course in science. Preview lectures from this project are being conducted this year in the Miller Theatre presentation, "Theatre of Ideas" series.

Published: Nov 25, 2002
Last modified: Nov 22, 2002

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